Period language in "12 Years a Slave": "soft soap", "clean shirt"

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Sat Dec 21 22:34:56 UTC 2013

On Twitter, Nancy Friedman noted "a jarring 'OK' in an 1841 scene":

Benjamin Schmidt, who has been analyzing the script for anachronisms
using Google Ngram data, thinks that the "OK" line was ad-libbed.


On Sat, Dec 21, 2013 at 11:34 AM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
> To comment on only the language used in "12 Years a Slave", there was
> just one scene where my ears pricked up:
> "soft soap" ("to flatter"; the OED2 definition needs some
> expansion).  OED2 has in 1840, and 1843 from Bartlett's _Dict. of
> Americanisms_.
> "[come in with a] clean shirt" (morally or ethically spotless).  Not
> in OED yet!?  (Although my meagre printed resources and a very
> superficial Google search also don't turn this up -- have I created
> something out of whole cloth?)
> Solomon Northup was kidnapped in 1841, and published his memoir in
> 1853.   So "soft soap" is possible, and in fact it appears in an 1855
> edition of "Twelve Years a Slave" (GBooks, full view).
> "Clean shirt" doesn't appear (in that edition).  When did it arise in
> the sense I am supposing?

The American Dialect Society -

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